Movie reviews: Oscar nominee Isabelle Huppert turns in sad, unsettling performance in Elle

A successful video-game boss was violated by her father in thriller Elle and a lonely parent wants to make peace with his estranged daughter in German comedy Toni Erdmann

Those in a Chinese New Year family reunion-induced funk should seek out these two European films, each about women who work furiously at keeping their fathers at arm's length.

The French import Elle (M18, 130 minutes, opens tomorrow, only at The Projector, 4.5/5 stars) netted star Isabelle Huppert a Best Actress Golden Globe (Drama) for her role as a woman whose life is one long, carefully crafted performance.

Michele (Huppert) is the autocratic boss of a successful video-game company, living in a tony Paris neighbourhood. A shocking act of sexual violence is inflicted on her in the opening scene, a violation that colours everything revealed about her in the rest of the story.

Michele is motivated by a trauma caused by her father, one worse than the act shown in the first scene.

Isabelle Huppert plays a woman whose life is a crafted performance in Elle, for which she won a Best Actress Golden Globe (Drama) and has an Oscar nomination.
Isabelle Huppert plays a woman whose life is a crafted performance in Elle, for which she won a Best Actress Golden Globe (Drama) and has an Oscar nomination. PHOTO: LUNA FILMS

But her mask-like face and brusque conversations with lover Robert (Christian Berkel), close friend Anna (Anne Consigny), mother Irene (Judith Magre) and son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) show little about her state of mind.

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, he of the blockbusters Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997), has a ball confounding audience expectations.

He and screenwriter David Birke, in adapting Philippe Djian's 2012 novel Oh..., make Michele sympathetic one moment and a monster the next.

As the story unfolds, the loose character study tightens into a thriller. When that transformation occurs , it pulls the rug out from underneath Michele, as much as it does the viewer.

Huppert now has an Oscar nomination for what entertainment insiders call a "brave performance", because her character suffers extravagantly. But really, what sticks in the mind is Michele's quiet stoicism, at once sad and unsettling.

Sandra Huller is the German daughter whose father (Peter Simonischek) unwittingly belittles her in Toni Erdmann. PHOTO: ANTICIPATE PICTURES

Yet Elle has failed to secure nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars - something the German comedy Toni Erdmann (M18, 162 minutes, opens on Saturday, only at The Projector, 4/5 stars) has done.

It makes a welcome return after appearing at last year's German Film Festival.

If you want "dad jokes" - jokes so poor that only fathers with a captive audience of their children have the temerity to make - Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is the king of them.

The lonely music teacher hopes to make peace with estranged daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), but they are opposites. He is the id to her superego - she craves order and the respect of her peers; he wants nothing more than to hang out and play pranks involving fake teeth and terrible wigs.

This makes it sound as if audiences are in for a non-stop barrage of odd-couple skits, but the film is nothing like that.

Writer-director Maren Ade takes care to craft Ines as the globalised German, driven to excellence at the cost of everything else.

Her discomfort comes not from her dad invading her space, but from how he chips away at everything that boosts her self-esteem.

This is Ade's masterful take on cringe comedy.

A Kind Of Murder (PG13, 96 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars) is the second psychological thriller this week after Elle and it fares very badly in comparison.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's 1954 crime novel The Blunderer, it centres on the aspirations and obsessions of a man who overestimates his potential, much like the protagonist in the much better Highsmith tie-in, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).

Walter (Patrick Wilson) is an architect and wannabe crime novelist whose ambitions are frustrated, he thinks, by mentally disturbed wife Clara (Jessica Biel). He becomes entangled in a real crime investigation after a woman is killed at a rest stop for buses.

English director Andy Goddard, who comes from directing episodes of hit period drama Downton Abbey, struggles to find a path through a story muddled by poor editing and even murkier characters.

For example, there is a detective, Corby (played by Vincent Kartheiser, from television's Mad Men), who is either unhinged or extremely dedicated, it is hard to tell.

Whichever it is, the film makes Kartheiser look like an actor who got the wrong script, but chose to just go along with it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2017, with the headline 'Women keeping a distance from dads'. Print Edition | Subscribe